After a grueling 13 hour bus ride on Friday—the road from Phnom Penh to Rattanikiri is just as muddy and pothole-ridden as everyone warned—I made it! I stepped off the bus to only a few people shouting at me to stay in their guesthouses, definitely an improvement, and started chatting with a young guy that said I could get a room for three dollars (12000 riel), with a free moto ride there! I definitely got what I paid for with the room, but it worked for a night.
Now, I’m officially moved into my apartment! IBJ helped set me up with a great place; for only $50 a month I have my own room on the second floor of big blue house located next to the Banlung market. My room has a electricity, running water, a big bed, a cot, a fan, a balcony, mosquito nets galore, a bathroom, and a fantastic view (see below). The family that owns the place (they live downstairs) has been extremely kind.
The view off of my balcony!
Although my place is nice, it’s definitely not extravagant. Sometimes I kind of feel like I’m camping. The power goes out intermittently so I often find myself blindly reaching around my room for a flashlight or headlamp. In the latest blackout (about an hour ago) one of the women that lives downstairs and her five-year old twins brought me a candle. The electricity isn’t the only inconsistent thing—the water goes along with it. I’ll probably be taking a lot of bucket baths. There are also bugs in my place, thanks to my open windows. The mosquito nets generally nix this problem until the rare circumstance when a lone moth somehow gets underneath. On the plus side, I fall asleep to the sound of crickets. My bed is hard wood with a bamboo mat over it (no mattress), which my back is still getting accustomed to. I’m not complaining about any of these things, mind you. I was actually expecting to be living in much more primitive circumstances: small bamboo mat on the floor with a family of 11 in a one room hut, squat toilet outside, the works, so I’m maybe even a little disappointed that my living situation is so posh.
Banlung in general is much more swanky than I expected. Granted, the city is quite small, but there are lots of shops and plenty of restaurants, stalls, and street vendors offering a wide array of dishes. Sal’s Restaurant is already a favorite—it’s located in the upstairs of a hut on stilts right outside of the city, and this amazing Khmer woman (Sal) makes literally the best three dollar burger I have ever eaten. So whenever I get tired of eating lok lak (beef and gravy) or my other favorite Khmer dish, amuk (fish and curry), I have Sal. Not only do I get to eat the greatest burgers, but the best coconut shakes in the world are available, right on the lakeside, at Coconut Shake Shack for only one dollar (4000 riel…actually pretty expensive for a shake here, but I guess they are the best in the world). Another favorite: a lovely little Vietnamese yogurt and cake shop with 25 cent (1000 riel) slices of banana cake. There's even a stall selling a buffet of fried crickets, grasshoppers, and larvae…I will definitely try them at some point, but I’m sure I’ll spend much more time in the cake shop.
I’m already meeting people and beginning to build a community. That’s what I love about small towns: people are always so eager to reach out to newcomers. The main hang out for other Western NGO workers is a travel agency/restaurant owned by a very kind Dutch couple. My Khmer is by far the worst of everyone’s, but hopefully I’ll catch up to them in eight weeks or so! One of my friends referred me to a tutor, so I’ll call him soon to set up some Khmer lessons.
I start work tomorrow! I’ll let you know how it goes!